Earth Matters: Responding to changes in the weather

A driver guns his pickup truck as he tries to make it through the flooded intersection of Graham Hill Road and Mt. Hermon Road in February 2017. (Dan Coyro -- Santa Cruz Sentinel file)

By Ross Clark

Earth Matters

More than 35 inches of rain fell during the 2016-2017 winter, leading to $100 million in infrastructure damage for Santa Cruz County. Further south, the December 2017 Santa Barbara fire and January rains led to the loss of almost 100 buildings and more than 20 lives. The costs to remove tens of thousands of truckloads of mud and debris were significant.

These are examples of emergency response challenges that face our communities; response efforts that are becoming more regular and more costly as our climate changes. Staff from Santa Barbara County noted during a presentation on climate challenges that 14 of California’s 20 largest fires have occurred since 2000. He also pointed to the unprecedented challenges his county faced while evacuating thousands of people during the massive fire and then evacuating the same communities less than a month later to escape the threats of flooding, (while portions of the forest continued to burn).

Rains that hit Santa Barbara on January 9th led to mass erosion of hillsides that had just burned, washing sediment downstream, plugging storm drains, driving mud flows through homes, and destroying more than 50 buildings. Because of the mandatory evacuation order and early preparations, far fewer lives were lost during this disaster.

The magnitude of these climate disasters was extreme, requiring local staff to develop instantaneous response strategies. Santa Barbara County looked to the Mount Saint Hellen ash management plan to tackle the unprecedented 12-plus inches of ash that covered downtown Santa Barbara during the December fire.

Communities are aware of these mounting challenges and are working together to identify threats and draft plans. With funding from FEMA and USEPA, the Central Coast Climate Collaborative held a meeting in San Luis Obispo last week supporting a regional partnership aimed at helping local cities prepare for these hazards.

The City of Santa Cruz has already evaluated hazards from climate change and sea level rise and is incorporated those risks into city hazard plans. Tiffany Wise-West, sustainability coordinator for the City of Santa Cruz, notes that the city “should be finding out if we received a grant to draft a West Cliff management plan aimed to generate coastline designs needed to increase coastal resiliency.” Road alignment, coastal access, and bike path options will be evaluated with an eye to changing risks from rising seas and larger waves.

Wise-West notes that “People are craving more information about possible risks within their communities.” Santa Cruz has initiated a dialog with community member regarding future risks to the city and priority steps to prepare. She stresses the need to reduce carbon emissions and for people to be aware of future hazards. “We need our residence to be part of a conversation on how we manage these hazards and how we select and pay for adaptation strategies”, notes Wise-West.

The city was recently recognized for their efforts to engage the community, including lower income areas of the city, in the climate resiliency conversation. Santa Cruz has hosted a number of community meetings, specifically in Spanish speaking areas, to discuss the threats to those portions of the city and identify unique adaptation needs of the residents. The City is also distributing information on climate risks and adaptation planning (all available in Spanish and English at the Santa Cruz climate adaptation website). A virtual reality viewer is being produced so residence can visualize predicted flooding risks within the city.

Ross Clark is the director of the Central Coast Wetlands Group at Moss Landing Marine Labs. He’s also a member of the county Commission on the Environment and the Monterey Bay Sanctuary Research Activity Panel. Contact him at


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